Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics
Even a few Jewish artists received Hitler's grudging recognition. Most remarkable was his esteem for two whose artistry he knew firsthand, Gustav Mahler and Max Reinhardt—Mahler for his conducting at the Vienna Opera and Reinhardt for his directing in the Berlin theatre. 'He spoke favourably of such phenomena as Mahler and Max Reinhardt, whose abilities and achievements he did not deny,' Goebbels noted in his diary. 'When it came to reproducing the arts, the Jew often had something to contribute.' He was not always impeccably doctrinaire in his personal treatment of artists who were Jewish or partly Jewish. The opera singer Margarete Slezak, despite Jewish grandparents, was such a favourite that he promoted her career at the German Opera in Berlin after 1933 and often invited her to official receptions at the chancellery. One of his art dealers, Maria Almas Dietrich, had a Jewish father, bore a love child to a Jewish lover and was married for many years to a Turkish Jew. Under Gerdy Troost's prodding he reinstated a Jewish composer, Arthur Piechler, at the Augsburg conservatory. And he was friendly towards artists with Jewish relatives, such as Franz Lehar, the tenor Max Lorenz, the soprano Frida Leider and the conductor Franz von Hosslin, all of whom had Jewish spouses. These were exceptional cases, however, and the vast mass of Jewish artists found no mercy.
Crime itself was forgivable in Hitler's eyes if committed by an artist. Informed on one occasion that a painter of his acquaintance had Swindled a bank out of more than 1 million marks, he responded: 'The man is an artist—I am also an artist. Artists understand nothing of financial affairs. I forbid any action being taken against the man.' Such was also the case with the crime of homosexuality. Convinced that it was rampant in the Catholic clergy, he had no reluctance to have members of monastic orders jailed. In the case of artists his policy was 'don't ask, don't tell'. Consequently actors such as Gustaf Grundgens continued to act and singers such as Max Lorenz and Herbert Janssen went on singing. Most extraordinary of all, however, was Henriette von Schirach's interesting—if true—story that after his final victory he intended to imprison all the enemy leaders with the exception of the British prime minister. He admired him, he purportedly said, because he was an artist, just as he himself had been in his youth. 'Churchill will live comfortably in a fortress where I shall make it possible for him to write his memoirs and paint.'
To keep the arts going and forestall artists being killed in combat. Hitler decided on the eve of his attack on Poland in 1939 to exempt artists from military service, a privilege enjoyed by members of no other profession, even scientists. According to Speer, Hitler personally tore up the conscription papers of everyone whose name appeared on lists that Goebbels had given him. These lists had been prepared on Hitler's instructions by the Propaganda Ministry and the final selection was an amalgam of Hitler's personal preferences and raison d'etat. Those on list A were officially considered 'property of supreme importance' and were excused from all wartime obligations. Among the twenty-one such figures—nicknamed 'the divine' or 'the immortal'—were six from the field of literature (including Hans Carossa and Gerhart Hauptmann), twelve from the visual arts (including Arno Breker, Josef Thorak and Hermann Giesler) and three from the music world (Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Wilhelm Furtwangler). Four persons from the theatre were later added. List B, of somewhat less exalted artists, included the names of seventy-three painters, thirty-four sculptors, fifty architects, twenty-three industrial designers, fifteen conductors, eighteen composers, seventeen pianists, eighty-eight actors, numerous singers, one hundred and fifty persons from film and radio, countless instrumental players and all the members of nine symphony orchestras. In all, there were at least 20,000 exemptions, and the names of up-and-coming artists were continually added to the lists.
As the war got bloodier, these exemptions became increasingly unpopular on the home front and even more with the military. But when the generals told Hitler in early 1942 that an additional 800,000 men had to be found if operations in the East were to be resumed later that year and pressed for a reduction in the number of artists' exemptions to help fill the gap. Hitler would not hear of it. 'If we gradually wind down cultural activities, the home front will slip into a mood of resignation and after that into a mood of pessimism,' he responded. When Ulrich Roller, the son of the noted stage designer Alfred Roller, fell in Russia in 1942, Hitler was enraged and stormed, 'What is served by sending an artist to war? Some Russian idiot simply shoots down such a man!...A man of his sort is irreplaceable.' A year later, after the defeat at Stalingrad, when Speer was pressing for total mobilization at home, Goebbels—in an almost unique case of open disagreement with Hitler—proposed reducing artists' exemptions by 3500. Even now Hitler was unbending. As Goebbels noted,
Instead he took the position that precisely now, when the nation is called upon to make such tremendous efforts and such great sacrifices, something at least must remain intact so that people do not fall into bleak hopelessness. And so the Fiihrer once again gives me the strict instruction not to touch opera, theatre, concert and film. The number of men would in any case make up only a regiment. But this regiment can accomplish much more at home or with the troops than if they were in active combat.Three months later he forbade certain Berlin artists from voluntarily enlisting in the military. Only after incessant nagging by Speer and Goebbels was a compromise finally reached. He assented to a reduction in the number of exemptions, and Goebbels agreed to draw up what he called 'a list of the so-called 'divine'—approximately 300 to 400 genuinely outstanding artists of lasting importance who should remain exempted from military or civilian service'. As a consequence of Hitler's obstinacy, major orchestras and operas continued, as recordings demonstrate, to proffer outstanding performances right to the end. It was near the end that the Berlin Philharmonic was involved in what must rank as the most grotesque episode in musical history. There was apparently a general understanding that when the Philharmonic's programme included Bruckner's Fourth Symphony that would be a signal that the final days of the Third Reich had come. The concert of 13 April included the work. As everyone left the hall they encountered uniformed members of the Hitler Youth at the exits passing out free cyanide capsules.
Loyal as he was to 'his' artists, Hitler felt personally betrayed by any sign of ingratitude. During the war, when conductors and singers avoided performing in Berlin and other large cities to escape the danger from bombing, he was deeply angered. Similarly, on learning that one of the more skilled Third Reich painters, Constantin Gerhardinger, had refused to show his works in the 1943 Great German Art Exhibition in Munich for fear that they could be destroyed in an air raid. Hitler was beside himself. Before 1933 the artist had been totally unknown and often near starvation; to make his life and work easier, he blustered, he had seen to it that Gerhardinger, like other painters, had received high prices for his works and had become rich. In revenge Hitler revoked all the artist's privileges, annulled his honorary professorship, forbade him to exhibit and gave orders that the press should never again mention his name. By the same token he was deeply gratified when Furtwangler in the later years of the war refused to leave Berlin and, to protect him, ordered Speer to construct a special air raid shelter for him and his family.